Tunisia’s Success, Egypt’s Failure

Three years since the start of the Arab Spring, the constitutions of Tunisia and of Egypt are a study in contrasts.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Like a suit that is still baste-stictched before the final fitting, that’s how Tunisia looks today as it celebrates the third anniversary of its revolution this week. Moncef Marzouki is an interim president, Mehdi Jomaa is an interim prime minister, and the new government isn’t even temporary – it has yet to be formed. Nevertheless, the leaders now running the country seem to have a good chance of continuing to run it, at least until the election. That will be based on the constitution, whose passage is imminent.

This government was the result of a broad agreement between Tunisia’s Muslim streams – particularly the moderate-religious Al Nahda party, which won the last election – and the liberal secular groups that enjoy great public support.

Tunisians hope this will bring to an end months of political disputes and street violence that grew to threaten Tunisia’s stability and its economic rehabilitation.

If the forecasts are correct, this government will score another historic innovation: For the first time since Tunisia’s independence in 1956, when a Jew was appointed to the government – Andre Baruch, who served for two years – a Jew will again be in the cabinet.

Rene Trabelsi is the designated minister of tourism. The newspaper Al Tunisia quoted officials as saying Trabelsi had “rich experience in the field of tourism” and that his appointment “was also meant to send the world a message of moderation and conciliation towards members of all the religions.”

Indeed, the centrality of religion to private and public life has been a point of contention since the October 201l election, in which Al Nahda won 37 percent of the vote. Although Tunisia’s post-revolutionary government is led by a coalition with secular parties, the fear is that Al Nahda will dictate the agenda and decide that religion is the main source of legislation, as happened in Egypt and other Muslim-majority states.

Here Al Nahda has encountered a liberal defensive wall, based on Tunisia’s secular history and that became rooted during the tenures of Habib Bourguiba and Zine al Abadine Ben Ali, the president who was ousted in the revolution. But in contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and perhaps due to the public protest that led to the ousting of their regime, Al Nahda’s leaders agreed to give up power, to allow a government of experts to be formed and even subordinated their religious principles for the sake of a more liberal and secular constitution.

And so, as opposed to the new Egyptian constitution, that states that Islamic law is the main source of legislation, the Tunisian constitution will state that “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign country. Islam is its religion, Arabic is its language, and it is a republic. There is no possibility of changing this article.” The request by the religious movements to add Islam or the Koran as foundations of legislation were rejected, as were their demands to restrict equal status of men and women.

The result is not only a constitution that may be the most liberal in the Middle East, but also a new model of political conduct, according to which election victory, especially by religious parties, is not a necessary condition for ruling, and the good of the public and the stability of the country are more important that political power. The change that the Egyptians achieved through the strength of the army, when they ousted the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood and wrote a new constitution, the Tunisians achieved through consensus, even if it was accompanied by harsh confrontations.

Tunisia, which celebrated the third anniversary of the revolution this week with parades and private parties, is likely, with the ratification of its constitution, to serve as a model of success. But the stormy demonstrations at the end of the week against the government’s economic policy, the demand to create jobs in order to reduce the unemployment rate, which is now about 17 percent (24 percent in the outlying areas) and the meager growth, 1.7 percent in 2013, make it very clear that a magnificent constitution alone won’t be enough to fulfill the dreams of the revolution.

Egyptian women queue outside a polling center before voting on a new constitution, Jan. 14, 2014.Credit: AFP

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